WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama sought Friday to accelerate momentum toward an overhaul of immigration laws, signaling that he is open to a middle-ground agreement with Republicans that a growing number of lawmakers and advocates think could achieve a far-reaching deal this year.
Mr. Obama suggested in a pair of interviews that the ideological gap is narrowing between the parties, a day after House GOP leaders said they would pursue changes that would allow illegal immigrants to remain in the country legally. The president indicated that there is flexibility in a longtime White House demand that any deal must include a special path to citizenship for the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants.
The plan that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, outlined Thursday is "moving in the direction of the principles that I have laid out," Mr. Obama said Friday in an online video chat. "There are still some differences. Obviously, the devil is in the details, but it is my firm belief that we can get immigration reform done this year."
In another interview with CNN that aired Friday, Mr. Obama said that if Mr. Boehner were to pursue a plan that ended the deportation of most illegal immigrants and allowed them to pursue citizenship under existing channels, "I'm not sure how wide the divide ends up being" with Democratic proposals.
Mr. Obama's remarks represented a shift from the administration's hard-line stance that most illegal immigrants must receive a more direct and faster route to citizenship, reflected in the 13-year path included in a bipartisan Senate bill approved last summer. Latino and Asian American advocates for immigration overhaul, who overwhelmingly supported Mr. Obama's re-election bid in 2012, have long pressed the White House to stand firm on that point.
But administration officials, key congressional allies and some overhaul advocates said Friday that the president's rhetoric reflects an emerging understanding among Democrats that they must meet the House GOP's shifting stance with some compromise of their own if they hope to strike a deal to end continued mass deportations.
"What he is saying is, 'I am respectful of the [House] Republican majority,' " said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., a leading advocate on immigration who has criticized the Obama administration's deportation policies. "If your standard is citizenship for everyone immediately or no immigration reform at all, you are going to get no immigration reform at all," Mr. Gutierrez said.
Both sides cautioned that a long, uncertain road remains during a midterm election year. Immigration overhaul holds risks for both parties, particularly Republicans who fear that a vote on the controversial issue could jeopardize their standing among conservative voters.